Lily Allen is one mean girl. No, not in that vaguely disarming we-only-wear-pink-on-Wednesday manner. She’s meaner than that. With a bucketful of vindictive lyrics and a loose but deceptively sweet Cockney tongue, she’s more like the enraged girlfriend who might challenge The Streets to a barroom fight in London’s East End.
Incidentally, though, she may have inadvertently put her finger on the very source of some of Britain’s contemporary social maladies. On the second track of “Smile,” her latest EP, the brash Britpop singer laments over an electronica beat: “Wish my life was not so boring/ Every weekend, fall to the flooring/ Don’t get me started on Monday morning.”
Well, Shakespeare she ain’t, but then again, who’s asking her to be? When Allen tries to channel Lennon/McCartney on the title track — “I was so lost back then / But with a little help from my friends / I found a light in the tunnel at the end” — of course it sounds trite, contrived, banal. But considering the alternatives being thrown up by the pop music industry these days, it’s refreshing to hear a chorus that’s not simply a sentence fragment repeated ad nauseam. (Where’s that box of mine, Beyonce?)
In fact, the whole “Smile” EP manages to do something that lots of pop music doesn’t even attempt anymore: it features songs built around a discernible attitude, a recognizable emotion that the singer can actually shape and manipulate as she pleases. What Allen’s reflections on jilted love lack in poetic grace, her evocative treatment makes up for in spades. Rather than simply spouting faux-female-empowerment (which usually ends up sounding about as silly as Ron Burgundy’s braggadocio about building the Eiffel Tower from brawn and steel), Allen actually makes it possible to believe that she’s had her heart broken in twain.
And what’s more, most male listeners will probably come out feeling glad they’re not the guy who broke it. The title track oozes enough sly, wicked sentiment to make even the most cold-hearted bastard cringe: “Now you’re calling me up on the phone / Just to have a little whine and a moan / It’s only ’cause you’re feeling alone.” Allen’s bouncing British lilt makes it possible to get over the lameness of the rhymes and into the shoes of a singer with emotional issues that, if not completely serious, at least aren’t completely laughable.
Musically, the three songs on Allen’s disc are varied enough and concise enough to hold the listener’s attention while not insulting the bounds of good taste. “Smile” opens up with a smart urban reggae, shifts into a minimalist techno beat for the second song, “Cheryl Tweedy,” and ends with a shockingly catchy rock shuffle that sounds like it could have been put together by Bono and The Edge. Even if there’s an air of simplicity about the whole affair, there’s nothing remotely formulaic about the way each track is put together. It’s all the verve of old-school British bubblegum and, well, only a little of the tackiness.
Allen may well have created the world’s first unintentionally ironic pop album: It sounds deliberately unsophisticated, even if it’s just plain unsophisticated. It’s not entirely clear whether she is representing a brassy lower-middle-class British culture or having a bit of fun at its expense. The world may never know. But that’s no matter: Lily Allen’s the richer in the end, and perhaps even deservedly so.